The Gunning of America: Scholarly History or Polemic?

Clayton Cramer

                          A “New” Theory of American Gun Culture Origins

As I detail in a forthcoming article, [1] Pamela Haag’s The Gunning of America, repackages Michael Bellesiles’ false claims concerning when and how gun culture developed in America.  Those claims have been demonstrated to be false, based on Bellesiles’ own falsification of quotes, and false descriptions of his sources.  This article examines some of the grosser and most readily apparent factual errors in Haag’s book.

Unlike Bellesiles, whose fraudulent uses of sources was easy to demonstrate because he falsified documents available in most research libraries, Haag has relied heavily on papers in archives that are not so readily accessible.  Nonetheless, some of the errors are easily exposed, and raise major questions about the accuracy of her research.

 

                           California Gold Rush Gun Market

Haag tells us that Samuel Colt “had sent out an agent to California to tap into the gold-rush market in 1853, but he found the market saturated.  This new crop of settlers was more interested in agriculture than gold, and they had little need for the guns.”[2]  How then to explain an ad like this from the January 1, 1853 Sacramento Daily Union?

 

[3]

Pretty clearly, J.A. McCrea thought there was a market for Colt’s revolvers (and Warner’s revolvers) in 1853 Sacramento.  Perhaps he was mistaken, and Haag’s claim is correct.  But then why did he run this same ad in the same paper 199 times in 1853, and 281 times in 1854?[4]  If there was no demand for the pistols why would he continue advertising them when there was either no demand or very limited demand?  Perhaps he missed his mistake on the first several hundred ads.

If so, his oversight was apparently endemic:

 

 [5]

Note: 10 “cases Colt’s pistols.”  How many to a case? I do not know, but at least one.  And there are 16 repeats of that ad in 1852.[6]  In the 1850s, there are 1231 advertisements in California newspapers for “Colt’s pistols.”[7]  There are 483 ads for the singular “revolver,”[8] 1283 ads for “revolvers,”[9] and 4317 for “pistols” which of course includes the “Colt’s pistols.”[10]

There are three possibilities here.

  1. Merchants continued to advertise products for sale in a “market saturated” with guns.  If advertising was cheap, this might make sense.  The Sacramento Placer Times charged $4 for 10 lines of a column and $2 for every “subsequent insertion,”[11] which in 1850 would seem a discouragement to wasting money advertising unsellable goods.
  2. The gun industry’s marketing was very successful in creating demand for guns, which demolishes Haag’s claim about Colt finding the California Gold Rush gun “market saturated”.
  3. Demand in California was strong enough for guns that either Colt was wrong in his claim, or Haag has misinterpreted Colt’s letter on this subject.  In light of Haag’s clear hostility to the gun industry and gun ownership, it is worth examining Colt’s letter that she claims makes this statement.

More evidence of a gun culture in this period in California comes from ads like this:

[12]

Other ads appear for shooting galleries (what would be called a shooting range today):

 

[13]

This ad appears four times.[14]

A search for “shooting” finds 1838 matches, some of which do not refer to guns but are OCR failures on old, very small text, and are actually “sheeting.”[15]  Some are actually “shooting” such as an ad from Backus & Harrison, apparently a wholesaler by the quantities of goods sold (“2,000 lbs of bacon, 20 cases anchovies, 10,000 lbs. of sweet potatoes”) who offered “36 fancy shooting coats”.[16] 

Searching articles instead of ads found 2885 matches, a few of which are metaphorical (“grass shooting up on the prairies”) but most are of this form: “John Southworth was arrested for firing a pistol at his partner with intent to kill…”[17]  “A Case of Shooting at San Francisco” describes a suicide by a merchant in financial trouble.[18]  “Another Affray at the Humboldt” concerning a pistol shooting.[19]  Another account reports on two shootings in one day (at least one described as with a “revolver”) at a gambling establishment.[20]  An account of court proceedings in San Francisco reports on a fist fight that escalated: “Lilly said that Kay struck at him, and that thereupon he (Lilly) presented a pistol and would have killed Kay had not his pistol missed fire.”[21]  “Shooting at Stockton” involves a pistol shooting at a faro table.[22]  Another quarrel in a gambling establishment at Nevada City describes “the issue was, the ‘gent’ betting, pulled out one of ‘Colt’s best,’ and without shooting the right one, wounded three others.”[23]  All of these incidents are from the first seven months of 1850.

J.D. Borthwick’s Three Years in Calafornia [sic] (1857)[24] , described how San Francisco was awash in places of entertainment with signs that announced “No weapons admitted.”  While Borthwick thought little of the entertainments available, he did describe why it was nonetheless worth going:

if only to watch the company arrive, and to see the practical enforcement of the weapon clause in the announcements. Several doorkeepers were in attendance, to whom each man as he entered delivered up his knife or his pistol, receiving a check for it, just as one does for his cane or umbrella at the door of a picture-gallery. Most men draw a pistol from behind their back, and very often a knife along with it; some carried their bowie-knife down the back of their neck, or in their breast; demure, pious-looking men, in white neckcloths, lifted up the bottom of their waistcoat, and revealed the butt of a revolver; others, after having already disgorged a pistol, pulled up the leg of their trousers, and abstracted a huge bowie-knife from their boot; and there were men, terrible fellows, no doubt, but who were more likely to frighten themselves than any one else, who produced a revolver from each trouser-pocket, and a bowie-knife from their belt. If any man declared that he had no weapon, the statement was so incredible that he had to submit to be searched; an operation which was performed by the doorkeepers, who, I observed, were occasionally rewarded for their diligence by the discovery of a pistol secreted in some unusual part of the dress. [emphasis added][25]

Rifles appear repeatedly in 1850-59 California newspapers: 3953 matches, including ads for the “Sharp’s Patent Rifles.”[26]  Sometimes these are articles in which rifles play a part, such as this account about horse thieves: “The Spaniard on the opposite side of the table then rose, and fired a revolver at Mr. Clark, missing him.  Mr. B.F. Moore then came in, and the Spaniard fired at him, but missed.  He then took up a rifle and fired, at about five inches’ distance, blowing off the top of the Spaniard’s head.”[27] 

Colt’s letter (or at least Haag’s characterization of Colt’s letter) is clearly wrong; a strong and vigorous gun culture already existed in California before 1853.  Worse, that Haag never questioned the validity of this idea suggests either a gross ignorance of California’s turbulent and violent history during the 1850s or an intentional unwillingness to verify the claim she purports to have found.  Historians rely on primary sources, but if a primary source makes a claim that seems improbable or contrary to other evidence, serious historians - as opposed to polemicists - try to resolve such problems.

 

                “You Keep Using That Word.  I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.”[28]

Throughout her book, Haag uses the word “semiautomatic” to refer to guns that are not.  “The family name, which became the rifle name, eventually stood for the genus, becoming a synonym for repeating, semiautomatic rifles” [emphasis added].[29]  “As the semiautomatic ancestor of automatic machine guns, the Henry performed ‘a terrible work of death…” [emphasis added][30]  “Winchester had emerged the preeminent name for semiautomatic rifles.” [emphasis added][31]  “As the semiautomatic ancestor of automatic machine guns, the Henry performed “a terrible work of death.” [emphasis added][32]  But the Henry and Winchester rifles were not semiautomatic rifles.  “[T]he semi-automatic rifle—that is, the military rifle fitted with self-loading mechanism but fired by the trigger shot for shot”[33] does not describe the Henry or Winchester rifles, which must be reloaded by operation of the operating lever.[34]  Because Haag describes the mechanism and how it works,[35] this is clearly not ignorance, but perhaps an attempt to transfer some of the horror she associates with guns in the historical period she is examining to modern semiautomatic weapons.  This is especially problematic because the proper term “repeater” or “repeating” appears in several places in her book. [36]

Regardless of Haag’s motivation, her recurrent use of the incorrect terms casts serious doubt on either her level of research or honesty.  It would be something like referring to the role of “airplanes” for reconnaissance in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 instead of the more accurate “balloons.”

 

                                   Samuel Colt at His Brother’s Trial

Samuel Colt’s brother, John C. Colt, was the defendant in an especially grisly murder trial in 1842.  Colt was convicted of killing an acquaintance with a hatchet and trying to avoid blame by packing the body in a shipping box and sending it to New Orleans.  (And yes, if this makes you think of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Oblong Box,” that is no coincidence.)  Hot weather made the corpse riper than expected before leaving New York City, leading to its discovery.  Haag asserts that “Although Samuel Colt’s brother had committed a strange faux pas by not using a Colt to commit the murder, Samuel seized the opportunity of the trial to demonstrate his revolvers in the courtroom.”[37]  Haag is not the first person to misrepresent Samuel Colt’s part in this trial.  Michael Bellesiles, Haag’s predecessor in sloppy history, asserts that  Samuel Colt did take advantage of the publicity surrounding the trial to give a shooting display in the courtroom, convincingly demonstrating the superiority of his revolver to his brother’s ax as a murder weapon, though failing to aid John Colt in any comprehensible way.[38] 

This seems incomprehensible, because it did not take place the way either Bellesiles or Haag describe it, perhaps because both relied on secondary sources when primary sources were readily available.  Like all good fish stories, the tale gets better the more removed you get from the incident.

The New-York Tribune covered the trial in great detail. The prosecutor had obtained an indictment of John C. Colt, alleging murder with a hatchet or ax.  He requested at trial to amend the charge to include having shot the victim.  That the neighbors heard no gunshot was answered by the prosecutor claiming that a Colt pistol fired with only a percussion cap had sufficient energy to kill a man, and that the wound in the head of the deceased was from a gunshot, not an edged weapon. John C. Colt definitely owned a Colt pistol.  Samuel Colt was called as an expert witness concerning this possibility.  The Tribune’s report says, “Mr. Colt showed the Court and Jury how [the pistol was] loaded; and discharged with a cap alone, and then how the ball is put in.  He then fired off the pistol, catching in his hand all the balls.” Yes, with his hand over the muzzle.  “He had on a glove, but offered to try the same with his bare hand.”  Samuel then asserted, “I am satisfied no ball fired under such circumstances ever penetrated a book.”[39]  Other expert witnesses argued that the wound characteristics did not match a gunshot, but the coroner displayed the victim’s skull (brought to the courtroom from the victim’s grave many months after burial, under protest from Colt’s defense attorney).  “Dr. Rogers showed that the edge of the hatchet exactly fitted the depression on the right side of the head.”[40]  Samuel Colt did not demonstrate “the superiority of his revolver to his brother’s ax as a murder weapon,” which would indeed have done his brother no good.  Nor did he “demonstrate his revolvers in the courtroom.”  A primary source was readily available,[41] but it would not have portrayed Samuel Colt as a mercenary profiteer using his brother’s trial for the pursuit of commercial gain, so both Bellesiles and Haag have grossly misrepresented Samuel Colt’s part in it.

 

  Needless Errors

At one point, Haag discusses the Santa Clara Valley into which Sarah Winchester moved to build her fascinatingly peculiar house, now known as the Winchester Mystery House which is well worth visiting!  Haag described Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton which oversees the valley.  “The dome held the thirty-six-inch telescope lens, the world’s largest, designed by William Malcolm.”[42]  As something of a telescope aficionado, I immediately heard several alarm bells.  First of all, the lens of the 36” telescope (which I have enjoyed the privilege of looking through) was made “by Alvan Clark and his son Alvan G. Clark.”[43]  I was unable to locate her source, but found him elsewhere described as a “manufacturer of rifle telescopes” (as riflescopes were once described) and “He has also made special purpose instruments for the Lick Observatory of California…”[44]  Haag acknowledges Malcolm’s fame for riflescopes.[45]

This is a pretty obscure error, of no relevance to Haag’s argument, but a vivid illustration of her often slipshod research. 

 

 Summary

I have focused on three substantial errors and one minor lapse in Haag’s book because in contrast to Bellisiles’s outright fraud, Haag has relied on archival materials not readily accessible from a great distance.  My next task will be to start checking those obscure sources for accuracy.

_______________________________________

Clayton Cramer is adjunct instructor in history at the College of Western Idaho.  He is the author of Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic:  Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (1999) and Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie (2006).  His article “Guns on Campus: A History,” appeared in the Winter, 2014 issue of Academic Questions, vol. 27, no. 4

 

Image: Creative Commons

[1] Clayton E. Cramer, “Bellesiles’ Arming America Redux: Does The Gunning of America Rewrite American History to Suit Modern Sensibilities?” Southern Illinois. University. Law Journal, [forthcoming, Winter 2017] available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2789895.

[2] Haag, The Gunning of America, 48

[3] Sacramento Daily Union, Jan. 1, 1853, p. 4, col. 9. 

[4] California Digital Newspaper Collection, search criteria: years 1853-54, newspaper: Sacramento Daily Union, string “Colt’s pistols”, Category: ADVERTISEMENT.

[5] Daily Alta California, Dec. 7, 1852, p. 3, col. 7.

[6] California Digital Newspaper Collection, search criteria: years 1853-54, newspaper Daily Alta California, Union, string “Colt’s pistols”, Category: ADVERTISEMENT.

[7] California Digital Newspaper Collection, search criteria: years 1850-59, newspapers: All, string “Colt’s pistols”, Category: ADVERTISEMENT.

[8] California Digital Newspaper Collection, search criteria: years 1850-59, newspapers: All, string “revolver”, Category: ADVERTISEMENT.

[9] California Digital Newspaper Collection, search criteria: years 1850-59, newspapers: All, string “revolvers”, Category: ADVERTISEMENT.

[10] California Digital Newspaper Collection, search criteria: years 1850-59, newspapers: All, string “pistols”, Category: ADVERTISEMENT.

[11] Placer Times, Mar. 23, 1850, p. 1, col. 1.

[12] Daily Alta California, Dec. 22, 1851, p. 1, col. 4.

[13] Daily Alta California, Nov. 4, 1851, p. 3, col. 3.

[14] California Digital Newspaper Collection, search criteria: years 1850-59, newspapers: All, string “’shooting gallery’ Windrow”, Category: ADVERTISEMENT.

[15] California Digital Newspaper Collection, search criteria: years 1850-59, newspapers: All, string “shooting”, Category: ADVERTISEMENT.

[16] Daily Alta California, Jun. 26, 1850, p. 3, col. 5.

[17] Daily Alta California, Jan. 9, 1850, p. 2, col. 4.

[18] Placer Times, Mar. 23, 1850, p. 2, col. 1.

[19] Placer Times, May 24, 1850, p. 1, col. 4.

[20] Daily Alta California, Jul. 11, 1850, p. 3, col. 5.

[21] Daily Alta California, Jul. 17, 1850, p. 2, col. 3.

[22] Daily Alta California, Jul. 22, 1850, p.2, col. 1.

[23] Sacramento Transcript, Jul. 26, 1850, p. 2, col. 5.

[24] Available at https://books.google.com/books?id=7EFHAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA169&dq=%22Three+Years+in+Calafornia%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj2ir-VjO3OAhVMwWMKHbUwAngQ6AEIIDAA#v=onepage&q=%22Three%20Years%20in%20Calafornia%22&f=false.

[25] J.D. Borthwick, “Three Years in Calafornia [sic],” Hutchings Illustrated California Magazine at 2:171-2, October 1857.

[26] Daily Alta California, Feb. 4, 1854, p. 2, col. 5.

[27] “The Calaveras Tragedy,” Sacramento Daily Union, Apr. 13, 1852, p. 2, col.  5.

[28] Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride (1987).

[29] Haag, 179.

[30] Haag, 88.

[31] Haag, 204.

[32] Haag, 88.

[33] “Rifles and Light Machine Guns,” Encyclopedia Britannica (1922), 32:277

[34] Tom Warlow, Firearms, the Law, and Forensic Ballistics (3rd ed. 2012), 88-89

[35] Haag, 180-1.

[36] Haag, 179.

[37] Haag, 106.

[38] Michael Bellesiles, Arming America (2000), 354.

[39] “Colt’s Trial,” New-York Tribune, Jan. 26, 1842, 1.  Examination of New York Herald coverage for January 26, 1842 gives identical information about Samuel Colt’s involvement, as does John Davison Lawson, 1 American State Trials 471 (1914).

[40] Ibid., 2.

[41] Colt’s Trial,” New-York Tribune, Jan. 26, 1842, 1.  Examination of New York Herald coverage for January 26, 1842 gives identical information about Samuel Colt’s involvement, as does John Davison Lawson, 1 American State Trials 471 (1914).

[42] Haag, 216.

[43] University of California Observatories, “Telescopes of the Lick Observatory,” https://www.ucolick.org/public/telescopes/36-inch.html, last accessed June 13, 2016.

[44] Resources of Onondaga County: A Complete Review of the Manufacturing and Jobbing Interests of Syracuse, 202 (1883).

[45] Haag, 216.

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